Skin might not seem at first like a topic that can fill a book, but by the end of Skin Deep it is clear that author Phillipa McGuinness could probably have filled several.
McGuinness uses skin as a springboard to explore a cross-section of vital issues and ideas, ranging from racism to beauty, from cancer to loneliness. It’s an ambitious task that McGuinness takes on with gusto and skill. The book can be roughly divided into three key areas of focus: skin colour; skin and disease; and the social and cultural aspects of skin.
The greatest strength of Skin Deep is the insights it achieves by blending stories with science. One example is when the author speaks to people about their tattoos – the reasons why they have them, the personal meanings – placing these stories into a wider social context while weaving in an explanation of how tattoos physically work in the skin. McGuinness brings this spirit of inquiry to every topic she takes on in Skin Deep.
In the medical sections she speaks to people on both sides of a diagnosis, which allows her to paint a fuller picture. Her exploration of skin colour is well researched and carefully unpacked, but draws more from books and articles than the subsequent chapters, which include more first-person interviews. As a result this section differs tonally from the rest of the book. The strongest parts of Skin Deep are where McGuinness draws on her interviews and research and where her presence is felt.
Each section is almost a standalone essay. Beyond the unifying factor of skin, there isn’t a real drive to this book. Every topic relates back to skin, but there isn’t much else that connects them. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good – the book has much to offer and is a compelling, well-researched read. Those searching for – forgive me – a deeper connection between the main topics of Skin Deep aren’t going to find it. But they will find much to think about.
McGuinness peppers the prose with her dry wit, making Skin Deep a warm and accessible book. It’s clear in every line that she has done her research, and her curiosity and clear enthusiasm are contagious. Skin Deep is a thorough and varied analysis of something that is so crucial and visible, and yet remains unsung.
Vintage, 336pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Skin Deep, Phillipa McGuinness".
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